CARSON, Calif. – Sporting Kansas City outworked the LA Galaxy most of the night, took advantage of defensive errors to score a pair of second-half goals and were cruising to a fourth victory in six games this young season.
Then Zlatan Ibrahimovic came on, and as everyone saw in his debut the weekend before, he's capable of things others can only imagine. Another miracle, perhaps?
Not this time.
Sporting limited the Swedish star to three shots at distance, all ably handled by goalkeeper Tim Melia. And despite reigning MLS Player of the Month Felipe Gutierrez’s absence with a hip injury, the visitors claimed their second straight clean-sheet victory in a 2-0 triumph at StubHub Center.
“What we were really concerned about was them whipping crosses in at the back post,” SKC head coach Peter Vermes said. “And I thought we did a decent job, knowing full well that there were balls we were not going to be able to get to, but we're going to have to get ready for the second one. And we were hoping to put [Ibrahimovic] in places where he couldn't go direct to goal, and that kind of did happen. All in all, I thought we did a pretty good job against him.”
Whatever defensive problems ailed KC to start the campaign appear to have been addressed. They've gone 262 minutes without conceding a goal and handled the Galaxy despite getting outshot, 22-13.
“From the 8th minute on in Colorado [two weeks ago], we've done pretty well,” center back Ike Opara told MLSsoccer.com in a jubilant KC locker room. “We've corrected some of the issues we had going on. I can't reveal too much, but [it has to do with] what we want to do in space and when the ball goes wide, especially. And then kind of what we do individually, getting back to who we are and playing more with instinct.
“We have some new guys and were trying to incorporate them, so it was a little tough to gel at the same time. So we have to make plays in the back, and the onus is on us to keep doing that. It just happened to be that we needed to make more in the first few games of the year, but we're up to the task now.”
Tim Melia made 10 saves, including a huge parry to redirect Ashley Cole's bending shot towards the lower-right corner off the post just before halftime. LA clanked two more shots off the woodwork, but Melia handled everything else thrown at him.
“I really didn't feel I did that much,” last year's MLS Goalkeeper of the Year said. “The effort from our group tonight was unreal. I mean, the amount of pressure, the shifting, the balance – everything was unreal.
“If we can compete like that – we're getting guys blocking shots, we're getting guys shifting quicker, everyone's winning aerial battles. That's who we were last year, and that's why we're able to have as good of a defense as we did, and if we continue to work towards the way we played tonight, it's going to be important.”
Vermes said he wasn't concerned about defense after Sporting conceded nine times in the first 272 minutes of the season – “We were making some bad decisions, and we needed to get back into our rhythm,” he said – and was pleased with his side's performance in a number of ways.
“I would say that for the most part in the game, I think we controlled it with possession, we limited the number of chances they could have, but once we went up 2-nil, you know that they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us,” said Vermes. “I thought we had good maturity on the field, responded well from that perspective, and then the final piece is being able to come into anybody's place and play with a level of confidence and possession is huge. But to be able to do that here against the Galaxy [is bigger], because they're a big club, they're a good club, and they have a lot of weapons on their team. And add in there the emotional victory they had [against LAFC eight days earlier].
“You can take all of that and be able to come in and do what we did, this was massive points for us. And at the same was a step of getting a little maturity as a group early on in the season.”